Raydon Army Air Force Station 157 was located in Suffolk, near the east coast of England in 1944. The Ready Room bulletin board of the 351st Fighter Squadron, 353rd Fighter Group, showed Lt Robert Strobell and his fellow fighter pilots the names of those who would fly in combat each day. He recalled that if one’s name did not appear on the combat board, you knew you would be assigned to other flying tasks like ‘slow-timing’ an airplane with a new engine just installed, similar to breaking in a new car engine. And some times one would be asked to take a plane to the depot for major repairs, or to train a replacement pilot on instruments, navigation, dive-bombing, or to fly a test-hop on a plane that had been running rough before repairs or adjustments had been made. Such assignments were given in the Ready Room.

The Ready Room was like a small theatre, with the seats facing a large map of most of England, the English Channel and western Europe. For security purposes, the map was covered when the pilots entered the room for a briefing. The map always had two colored lines on it, one showing the route of the bombers and another color for the route of the fighters and where they would rendezvous with the bombers. When the raid was to be a deep penetration into Germany, there was plenty of muttering and swearing among the pilots as the curtain went up. At one side of the map a bulletin board with large letters and numbers on it was readable from the back of the room. It displayed the take-off time, the combat altitude that to be flown, the compass heading to the rendezvous, and the compass heading for the return to base after the mission. The pilots were briefed on the weather over the mission area and the forecast for the base on their return, the bomber’s mission, enemy movements if any, and sometimes a comment on what some of the other squadrons had done the day before. A lot of time and effort went into the planning and presentation of these briefings.

Of the routine, Strobell remembered that while sleeping in his Nissen hut, a pilot didn’t have to worry about waking up in time for the next day’s mission. He went to sleep in the knowledge that an orderly would come in at the appropriate time, wake him, tell him the time and when he was due in the Ready Room. The pilot got up, went to the latrine, dressed and walked (often in the mud) over to the Ready Room to find his assignment for the day posted on the big board. If he was assigned to a combat mission he would attend the briefing right after breakfast, and after the briefing, most of the pilots would visit the latrine again, some through nerves and others of necessity. He then picked up his parachute at the equipment room and went outside where a personnel truck with a canvas cover and bench seats on each side waited to take him and the other pilots out to the aircraft revetments. There the pilots were delivered to their airplanes spotted around the perimeter of the field. A crew chief waited there with each fighter. The crew chiefs had been alerted many hours before to the time of the flight and which planes would be flying that day. This was done on the telephone, conference-style, to all squadrons, so that the orders for the day only had to be read once.

Each pilot’s crew chief briefed him on the status of his plane, usually ‘ready’ for combat, and warned you about the minor glitches such as a tail-wheel shimmy. He then helped the pilot climb up on the wing, don his parachute (some did this on the ground), and get settled in the cockpit. He assisted with the shoulder harness and seat belt.

If it was to be a combat mission, the pilot normally sat in the airplane for a few minutes, or as much as a half hour, waiting for the signal to start engines. Every pilot knew from the briefing what his position was in the flight, and on whose wing he would be flying, and he taxied out to the perimeter track in that position when his leader came by. The leader and wingman would then take off side by side, using the full width of the runway.

On returing from the mission, the pilot would taxi back to the same revetment and would tell his crew chief what he did on that mission, and most importantly, what the airplane did or did not do, and what needed to be repaired, or if it had any battle damage, bullet holes or flak hits that he was aware of—some pilots didn’t know they had been hit. Then he hopped into a jeep or truck that took him back to the Ready Room.

If the pilot had fired his guns on the mission, the Intelligence Officer wanted to meet with him for a debriefing, particularly on enemy combat encounters, in which he had fired on an enemy aircraft in the air or on the ground. The whole process from beginning to end took from four to as much as eight hours, depending on the length of the mission and the complexity of the operation. The pilot then learned if he was scheduled to fly another mission, the second of the day. During his six months at Raydon, Bob Strobell flew two combat missions in one day on ten occasions.

A key role of the Allied fighter pilot in World War II was to shepherd his “big friends”—the bombers—to and from their targets in the various theaters of war. He did this with modest success for a while, but it was the advent of the ultra-long-range Mustang fighter that made the difference in the strategic bombing campaign.

One who flew the Mustang on the escort missions of the 357th Fighter Group was Captain William Overstreet, USAF (Ret): Bill reflected on how different the missions seemed after he had completed a few dozen. At first, everything was exciting—being awakened by the CQ, eating powdered eggs (usually green), going to the briefing room and seeing the tape across the map. So that’s where we are going today. Worrying about how many German planes will come up to intercept the bombers and fighters? How good their flak gunners would be? Will we have a chance to go down and do some strafing? The pilots made notes to put on their knee pads, vital mission information. When and where do the fighters rendezvous with the bombers? What is the proper heading and how long will it take at X miles per hour? How strong is the wind and from what direction? Some fellas have been blown so far off course that they didn’t have enough gas to get back to England.

They collect all of their equipment: mike, oxygen mask, the Mae West, raft, parachute and all of the other little things they may need. They climb on a weapons carrier for a ride out to the planes. It stops in front of Bill Overstreet’s Berlin Express and he is greeted by Red Dodsworth and Whitey McKain, part of the crew who take care of his plane and make sure that everything is in the best shape possible. They have worked long and hard, and inform him that the Express runs smooth as a kitten. He hopes it will be a real tiger as just as well.

It is time to start engines. The weather—and ground visibility—is so poor that they want a crew chief to ride the wing and help guide Overstreet while he taxies out to the runway. Whitey is sitting on his wing, and after the engine is running Bill leaves the pad to follow Andy’s [Captain Clarence E. Anderson] plane. He is flying Andy’s wing today, and knows he will be with the best. Andy is already an ace and helps all of the pilots to gain confidence and be better in combat. Bill flew a lot with him while training in P-39s, and now, in best American fighter—the P-51—he feels that no one can outfly them.

Overstreet has his canopy nearly closed to keep the snow out as he taxies. He feels sorry for Whitey out on the wing in the snow. But, with Whitey’s help, he makes it to the end of the runway and pulls up beside Andy’s Old Crow. Andy is on the left side of the runway with Bill on the right a few feet away and a few feet behind him. Bill waves for Whitey to leave and concentrates on Andy’s Mustang.

In the air, climbing in the clouds, Overstreet is staying as close to Andy as he can because if he loses sight of him even for an instant, Bill will be on his own in that cloud that have to climb through before I can see anything again. He remembers two friends who had a mid-air collision under these same circumstances and neither lived through it. That gives him plenty of incentive to stay close and concentrate.

This day Captain Overstreet feels they are lucky as the Mustangs break out of the clouds at 7,000 feet. The rest of the squadron is breaking out and forming up in flights of four. At full strength, each squadron would have four flights of four, and the group would have three squadrons. On this trip they don’t have enough planes and pilots so there are only three flights and one spare in his squadron. Then Irv Smith calls on the radio. ‘Sorry fellas, my engine is too rough. I have to abort.’ So the spare man, Ernest Tiede, moves up to take Smith’s place. Now Irv has to look for their base in the heavy clouds, with a rough engine.

The Mustangs continue climbing, heading for Muritz Lake where they are to meet up with the bombers at 12.40. With Overstreet as his wingman, Anderson has Joe Pierce and Bill Mitchell as his elements. The four have flown together for some time in P-39s and P-51s, and readily settle in for the hours of cold, uncomfortable sitting in the tight confines of their fighters, constantly alert to the possibility of an enemy surprise attack, a bounce from out of the sun when the German radar provides the information they need about the Mustangs’ position and heading. That is why most missions are set in some general direction and later adjusted toward the specific target of the day. It’s important to keep the enemy guessing if you can.

The American fighter pilots find the bombers just a few minutes behind schedule and in a somewhat loose formation. The three fighter squadrons take up their positions—one on the right—one on the left—and Overstreet’s as the high squadron for this day. They are to stay above the bombers, making sure the German fighters don’t have a high cover to attack the P-51s. With their height advantage, the Mustang pilots can dive to get more speed and break up any enemy formations that try to attack the bombers. The Americans gently weave at reduced speed to hold their positions with the bombers who are considerably slower.

Andy calls over the radio, ‘Bogies at twelve o’clock—get ready to drop tanks.’ He has sighted enemy fighters straight ahead of the Mustangs. The pilots then turn their fuel switches from our wing tanks, so they can drop their long-range external fuel tanks and prepare for combat. This, recalls Overstreet, was when everyone really got apprehensive. All of their training, everything they know, is about to be put to the test. The Germans still have a lot of good pilots and planes, and now roughly forty Americans are going to try to chase off about two hundred Jerries who are willing to do anything to keep the U.S. bombers from getting over their factories, refineries and other prime targets in their homeland.

At their leader’s signal, the Mustang pilots drop their wing tanks, give the planes more throttle, and head for the German formation. They are lined up in waves of twenty abreast to go through the bombers using all their guns and cannon with plenty of targets for each of them.

Anderson picks out the enemy fighter that seems to be their leader and goes after him. Overstreet eases back on the throttle a little so he can watch behind Andy’s plane and make sure that no one can get behind him. If a fighter can get behind another plane, his guns are much more accurate than at a wider deflection from other positions—why one always tries to get on the enemy’s tail, and avoid letting him get behind you. A good fighter group is a team. Each man has his job and if everyone does his job well, the team effort is successful. Overstreet’s job is to make sure that no enemy fighter gets in position behind Andy while Andy is trying to get behind the enemy.

At that point the other squadrons join the attack. Throttles are pushed forward for maximum power, climbing, diving, rolling, any possible maneuver to get a shot at the Germans while they are trying to do the same to the Americans. Andy gets hits on several of them and Bill getd a burst at a 109 that is too close to getting behind Andy. When Bill’s .50 caliber rounds hits his tail, the German dives for the deck to get away from the Mustangs.

The scramble becomes really wild. All the Mustangs are chasing the German fighters and breaking away when the Germans get in position behind the Mustangs. That means making a fast, tight turn to deny Jerry a good shot. The sky seems full of planes in every conceivable position, frequently inverted, and Bill is firing whenever he thinks he is in position to get some hits.

The squadron succeeds in diverting most of the enemy, but a few get through to hit some of the bombers. A lot of planes are smoking—some of the American bombers and some of the German fighters—and parachutes are now blossoming as people leave their crippled planes.

After what seems an eternity to Overstreet, but is actually only about five minutes, the battle appears to be over, the remaining bombers are still heading for their target and the Mustangs are chasing any German fighters that haven’t dived for the deck yet to get out of the fight. While most of the American fighters are scattered, Anderson and Overstreet are still together and the elements, Pierce and Mitchell, are still nearby. Andy sees some German fighters getting ready to hit the bombers again, so he and Overstreet head for them. Andy comes up below and behind a 109 and closes to within a few hundred yards. Bill keeps thinking he could fire but he waits until he is about 100 yards out before pulling the trigger. There is an explosion and the German’s right wing falls off. He bales out while Bill fires at his victim’s wingman. Sparkles light up on the fuselage and tail. The new target flips over and dives for the deck.

It is no longer such a target-rich environment, but Bill still counts ten German fighters trying to get to the bombers. The Germans see the Mustangs coming and decide to head for home. The Mustang pilots decide to give chase and follow the enemy planes in a power dive, pushing their air speed indicators to the red line. When one goes from 25,000 feet to the deck in a hurry, one is fighting trim tabs, rudders and everything else to keep flying straight, but all the pilots manage and Anderson is closing on one of the German planes when the enemy pilot pulls back on the stick and tries to lose his opponent by climbing. Andy stays right with him and Bill stays with Andy. The German tries every evasive tactic he can, but, when he and Andy are upside down, Andy gets a burst into the German’s engine to end the encounter. With his engine on fire, the enemy pilot is forced to leave his aircraft.

Now they are a few thousand feet over Germany, the German planes are scattered in all directions, and the group was spread all over the map. A decision has to be made—do the Mustangs go back up to see if they can help any bombers who may have lost engines and can’t keep up with their formation? They are sitting ducks for enemy fighters, so some P-51s escorting them could make the difference to their survival. Or should they stay on the deck and look for trains, barges, ammunition dumps or military convoys to attack?

As the P-51s are low on ammunition, the pilots start climbing. Soon, Pierce and Mitchell join Andy and Bill, and after all of the action, the flight is together to start the return trip to England, and will offer assistance to any ‘wounded’ bombers they see. They try to avoid the areas of heavy flak.

They spot and stay with a bomber that has lost two engines, until they near the English Channel and feel the bomber crew can make it from there. The Mustangs have just enough fuel to get back to base. There are still a lot of clouds over England, but now the ceiling is almost 100 feet so they have no trouble getting to base and landing.

There is no way anyone could count the planes they shot at, or those that shot at them, or the number of radar-guided ground gunners firing at them, or how many times they had an enemy plane in their sights, but had to break off because an enemy plane was closing behind from behind. How many times did they have to break off to chase one who was closing in on one of their teammates? A dogfight is almost a blur because of the fast and furious action. Today’s mission lasted a little over five hours. The P-51s destroyed sixteen German planes, and one American pilot had to bail out over Germany. Overstreet is grateful and relieved to be back safely.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!